Open Source 'leeches'

Ian pointed out this article via Twitter (I starting to get used to Twitter now that I have a client embedded in my iGoogle page). It a discussion by the author about whether community members who take but don’t contribute back is good or bad for the health of the community. I think the argument is presented well on both sides, including quotes from our friends Michael Scharf (on the bad side) and Mike Milinkovich (on the good side). I think in the past I’ve gone on record as saying that it’s disappointing when vendors don’t contribute back, but that I understand the reasons why. And the author did point out those reasons.

But I think this is an important thing to consider at this stage of Eclipse’s life cycle. Eclipse is a mature open source project. Vendors who were there in the early days have had long enough to figure out whether their investment in open source reaped the return they were hoping. And in these economic times, you’ll see these vendors faced with the decision on what to do with that investment. Good, you do more; bad, you reduce.

And I think the results are a mixed bag. Clearly for the CDT, the growth of the community was phenomenal. I see a lot of recognition that the CDT is now the defacto standard C/C++ IDE, especially in the embedded space. Most vendors there have dropped competing products and jumped on the bandwagon. Customers are well aware of the CDT and that plays into their purchasing decisions.

But there’s one factor of the “leeching” that somewhat scares me. What ends up happening is that it appears that you are investing in making your competitors’ products better, while they are not reciprocating. That doesn’t make much business sense. But that is a factor that’s starting to get added to the equation. ROI is one thing, but supporting the competition while getting less in return is a nasty consequence.

The conclusion of the article really drove home that point for me. “…, the culture of collaboration, which is really the ideal of open source, doesn’t run very deep in most companies. Institutions, as Woods pointed out, simply aren’t wired that way — yet.” I think more effort needs to be put into changing the wiring…